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Last Updated: Monday, 8 December 2003, 11:37 GMT
Beer and sandwich-boards
By Brendan O'Neill

As plans are announced to engage disaffected voters by trialling online ballots, a more low-tech tactic is spilling over into the mainstream - beer-mats.

When the Home Office launched a campaign last month to alert students to the dangers of crime, it knew exactly where to publish its "awareness-raising" information - on beer-mats.

The Good2BeSecure campaign, fronted by David Dickinson, whose BBC One show Bargain Hunt has become a cult hit among the young , offers students "top tips" on how to protect their property from burglars. Beer-mats have been distributed to student pubs around the country, warning: "Don't let them bag your booty! Nearly half of all burglaries are through an open door or window."

This isn't the first time that those in authority have tried to communicate with young people via the medium of the beer-mat. As ministers and officials become increasingly concerned about the "lost generation" - the 16- to 24-year-old age group which is disengaged from mainstream politics and less likely to vote - they seem keen to transform the public house into a new arena for public life.

The beer-mat in particular appears to have become point of contact - for everything from facts and figures about health and crime to encouraging teens and twenty-somethings to engage in politics.

John Prescott
The deputy PM single handedly starts a marketing trend
New Labour's first venture into propaganda-by-beer-mat was largely a gimmick. At the Labour Party conference in September 2000, party officials distributed a beer-mat ridiculing then Tory leader William Hague's boast that he once drank 14 pints.

Waving the beer-mat in the air, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott claimed the choice for Britain was between "Tory froth and Labour delivery". Journalist Simon Hoggart noted that, "In the past parties had manifestos; in 1997 they brought in pledge cards; now we have beer-mats."

In the run-up to the general election of 2001, Labour MP Andrew Smith took the beer-mat approach to politics a stage further. Smith's young activists gave out beer-mats in local pubs, encouraging students to "vote Labour".

In May this year, East Northamptonshire Council used beer mats to try to drum up interest in the local elections. "XXXX - it's not a dirty word. Vote 1st May 2003," said the 5,000 mats distributed to pubs, hotels and off-licences.

Where politics leads, others have keenly followed.

Banned mats

The beer-mat has been used to raise awareness about health issues among the young. In Wales, the Health Promotion Division made a beer-mat for distribution in pubs and clubs last year, advising young men to think seriously about safe sex.

Safe sex beer mat
They're just over the top - we cater for families with children
Landlord Kevin McArdle on the "prop forward" mat (above)
"Protect your prop forward!" was the witty motto, with a picture of a man in his underpants stretching a condom. (One landlord banned them from his pub on the grounds that a photograph of bulging underwear might offend patrons.)

Macmillan Cancer Relief also issued beer-mats with eye-catching photos. The mats showed close-up shots of a man's chest and a woman's cleavage, with the words "CHECK 'EM OUT". It is only when you flip the mat over that you realise it is an attempt to alert people to the symptoms of lung cancer.

Some even seem to believe that beer-mats could protect young women from assault. Last year, SureScreen Diagnostics of Derby launched a beer-mat designed to detect whether a date-rape drug has been dropped into a drink. But it was withdrawn after failing a series of laboratory tests.

The youth market is a notoriously tough one to crack, especially in politics. So are these novelty mats likely to make a difference? Or are they patronising; a way of dumbing down politics for the drinking generation?

"Who is to say what is the best or most legitimate way to engage with any group of people?" says Mark Weinstein of the Graduate School in Social and Policy Research at Nottingham Trent University.

One-way communication

"I don't think that there should be any hard and fast rules here. Surely it is best to make an attempt to connect with people where they are at, rather than where people may wish that they were at."

Will young people pay attention?
As part of the Youth and Politics project at Nottingham Trent, Weinstein has extensively researched political participation and cynicism among Britain's youth. "If you accept that there is a deep problem that needs to be addressed, then it has to be unwise to be constrained by the view that some methods of communication are out of bounds," he argues.

For Weinstein, the bigger question is what happens after young people have read a message on a beer-mat.

"There is the issue of whether it will be followed up in some other way, and whether this is the start of a more meaningful dialogue - the sort of dialogue that most people would appear to be asking for."

Fiona Booth of Heads Up!, a campaign by the Hansard Society to stir up political debate among British teens, agrees. "Anywhere is a legitimate place in which to engage with people, young or otherwise," she says.

"But the key distinction is that putting messages on beer mats is a one-way method of connecting - the essential way in which to engage young people in political debate is to hear their opinions and that means a two-way, interactive discussion."

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